Why is there a flying saucer in The MERL garden?

Science engagement officer, Robyn Hopcroft, reveals one of our new growing projects and the feat of DIY ingenuity behind an unusual landmark in our garden.

If you’ve visited us in the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed that something funny is going on with our garden. Perched above one of the raised beds there’s a suspicious object. Something that bears an uncanny resemblance to a spaceship. Well let me put your mind at ease. I can explain. It’s all part of a new growing project and that spaceship is here to help.

Image of flying saucer - like object in The MERL garden.

Alongside our new community growing spaces, we have built a raised garden box with a focus on science and technology. Our inaugural project will see us attempt to grow sugar beet. Being museum folk, we love a terrible pun, so I feel no shame whatsoever in revealing that our project is rather dubiously titled ‘Beet Box’.

Image of sugar beet by Okt154 (through Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike License).

Who knew this is where much of our sugar comes from? Image by Okt154 [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Is the world ready for Beet Box? We think so. Around 7.5 tonnes of sugar beet is grown in Britain each year and these crops are used to manufacture a large proportion of the sugar that we consume. With this in mind, we’re keen to learn more about the history and practicalities of this industry. We might only produce a few kilos of beets and a very small amount of sugar, but this provides a good opportunity to explore the process of sugar production from first-hand experience. It seemed fitting that we sow our seeds on British Science Week, and using expert growing advice and seeds provided by British Sugar gives us the best chances of success. Let’s cross our fingers that conditions will be right to take our tiny crop to harvest.

Image of science engagement volunteer, Don, watering in our newly planted beet seeds.

Science engagement volunteer, Don, watering in our newly planted beet seeds.

So where does the spaceship come in? 

We wanted to do more than just grow beets, we also wanted to explore how technology could be used to track growing conditions. We’re delighted to be collaborating with Reading Hackspace on the project, and several their members have kindly donated their time and expertise to design and set up a monitoring system for Beet Box. Having installed soil and weather sensors, they also plan to use a solar-powered camera to capture information about the growth of the beets, and the solar panel is intended to sit inside that nifty Perspex spaceship enclosure.

Image of Richard and Mike from Reading Hackspace installing monitoring equipment in the Beet Box garden bed.

A work in progress: Prior to planting, Richard and Mike from Reading Hackspace
started installing monitoring equipment in the Beet Box.

The Hackspace folks are a community of enthusiastic makers who use rLab – a peer led workshop, open to anyone who is interested – as a base for knowledge sharing and work on a wide range of fascinating projects. The team working on Beet Box have taken care to design a system for the garden box that is open source and uses widely available components, providing an opportunity to use the project for educational purposes and to allow anyone to replicate or take inspiration from the setup.

Image of our newly-sown Beet Box garden bed.

In the weeks and months to come, we will share more detailed information about the system and the progress of our beets, and get feeds up and running so that data from the project is freely available online. In the meantime, we anxiously await the germination of our beet seeds.

Volunteers’ Voice #5 – Gardening at MERL

In this month’s Volunteers’ Voice, Volunteer Co-ordinator Rob Davies gives some background on some gardening at MERL and enlists the help of our two of our gardening volunteers to explain how they have helped create bee-friendly habitats in the MERL gardens…

We have an outstanding volunteer gardening team who come, rain or shine, to tend to our gardens. We have a series of plots which have a different theme every year. In the past we have had a war-time garden, white borders and a myriad of tulips.

Tulips and  volunteers March 2012

Tulips and volunteers March 2012

Our volunteer garden team also have worked on the National Lottery Project ‘A Green Welcome’ which has transformed our dull uninviting front garden into a welcoming and wildlife friendly space. We worked with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) on this project, they are an inspirational organisation who work with volunteers on sites across Reading. I certainly learnt a lot from them, in particular how to make hurdle!

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

This year we opted for plants that encourage bees. With the national decline in the bee population, we have themed our plots not only to attract and support bees but also to encourage visitors to the museum to do the same.

Below, two of gardening volunteers, Tony and Roger have described the work they have done but also talk about the Bee World project which is being coordinated by the Friends of the Earth.

The “Bee World” is an idea that is being promoted by Friends of the Earth. According to their website, Bee Worlds are havens of wildflowers in urban and rural spaces. They provide essential food and shelter for bees, and help reverse the trend of declining bee populations in the UK. To find out more about Bee Worlds, you can download a Bee World Information Pack from the Friends of the Earth website, or borrow a copy to use during your visit to MERL.

Our Bee Project at MERL has been set up to show you what you can do in your own garden to help bees – whether by leaving a part of your garden to nature’s care, or by growing a variety of flowers and vegetables that provide food for bees. Remember, bees are like people, they need somewhere to live, and regular meals.

Bee friendly plot

Bee friendly plot

Here are some of the things we have done to help bees in the MERL garden:

  1. Half-hardy annuals. After the first of three beds of roses, Bed 1 nearest to the main entrance to the gardens was used to grow flowering plants that were bought from White Tower Nursery at Aldermaston. These are mostly half-hardy annuals (raised under glass and planted out as soon as spring frosts are over) plus a few perennials. They all have one thing in common: they are attractive to bees of many species.
  2. Hardy annual mixtures. Bed 2 was divided into four sections and annual flower seed sown directly into the ground in early April. They were covered in permeable horticultural fleece to conserve moisture and maintain warmth in the early days of the spring. Four mixtures of annual flowers were grown: “Wildflower Honey Bee-friendly mixture”, “Butterfly mixture”, “Fragrant mixture” and “Fairy mixture”.Germination was excellent and by mid June many of the species in the four mixtures from Thompson and Morgan had begun to come into flower. The results were quite startling in the range of species, flower type and colour (we have still not identified many of them yet!). This wide range of species is a most important factor in supporting the population of various pollinating insects since the flowering period of so many species differs. The length of time that they were in flower was very satisfying and the later part of the summer weather was just what they needed. These beds in particular seemed to be alive with insect life for the whole summer. It is also a very inexpensive way of covering odd sunny corners of gardens with colour and interest. At the same time, they provide pollinating insects with a source of nectar and pollen during their most active period.
  3. Vegetables. We also grew runner beans, french beans and broad beans as examples of vegetables that bees pollinate. Difficult weather conditions this year meant that the early broad beans germinated badly in the wet part of the early summer and had to be sown again. The next sowing merely provided an excellent food source for black aphids as the hot weather tightened its grip. Detergent spray was used with a suitable level of outrage but ensured only cleaner-looking aphids. That’s horticulture!

You can see more pictures of the bee friendly beds at MERL on our Flickr page

Guest post: My year in the Harris Garden by Jenny Halstead

Our first guest post is by Jenny Halstead, whose exhibition, An artist’s year in the Harris Garden opened at MERL last week. Jenny is a local artist who spent a year as Artist in Residence at the University of Reading’s beautiful Harris Garden.  The resulting exhibition showcases the paintings and sketchbook studies which take us through the seasons, moods and development of the Garden over the duration of a year from 2011. The exhibition at MERL is a wonderful example of collaboration between one of Reading’s best-known local artists, the University and the Museum, and is already attracting people with an interest in Jenny’s work and the Garden, but who may never have thought of visiting MERL before. We are delighted that Jenny has agreed to give us an insight here into how the exhibition evolved…

My year in the Harris Garden, by Jenny Halstead.

The exhibition is up … on the newly painted panelling in the Studio at MERL. Seeing one’s work all together and displayed for the first time is always a surprise.

Jenny installing the exhibition in the Studio at MERL

Jenny installing the exhibition in the Studio at MERL

I had planned the arrangement on paper, and hoped it would all fit as well when on the wall…and it did!   I wanted to create the transition and flow of the seasons around the two walls of the room,  starting with the process of people planting in ‘Forward Looking’ then into the cool colours of winter – the snow and the frost giving way to the acid greens of spring, followed by the vivid colours of summer, before drifting into the oranges and earth colours of autumn. During my year as Artist in Residence, I’ve recorded the Harris Garden over the changing months, its development and the people who work in it. This I have done by using  sketchbook studies rather than photographs (although a camera is useful on occasions for extra reference).

Jenny sketching in the Harris Garden

Jenny sketching in the Harris Garden

When I draw, I engage with the subject, the eye observes, the brain absorbs and the hand holding the pen translates. The drawing is a thought-process and adding a tonal wash gives me enough information to make  finished paintings in the studio later.

Most of these sketches are on a continuous loop playing on a monitor as part of the exhibition. The iPad is text–free and encourages the visitor to flick through the images of paintings and, when tapped, to hear my voice describing either the scene or my reasons for choosing to paint it and choosing the medium to be used. It has been fun planning the exhibition, choosing the selection of paintings and sketches to be used in the book An artist’s year in the Harris Garden (published by Two Rivers Press) and writing the accompanying text, with extra input from other invited contributors.

Jenny signing copies of the book at the Private View

Jenny signing copies of the book at the Private View

The year has been a fantastic one and I have so enjoyed all aspects of the project and the process, and hope the visitor enjoys the  exhibition as much as the Garden itself. Jenny

Toddler Time inspired by Jenny's exhibition

Toddler Time inspired by Jenny’s exhibition

For full details of ‘An artist’s year in the Harris Garden’ and related events, including a afternoon sketching workshop in the MERL garden, Jenny’s open studio as part of the Whiteknights Studio Trail, visit the exhibition page on the MERL website. You’ll also be able to meet Jenny at the MERL Village Fete tomorrow, Saturday June 1st…